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Bonnet Carré Closure Prompts Cemetery Inspections

Travis Lux
Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers walk across the Kenner Cemetery -- one of two cemeteries inside the Bonnet Carré Spillway where the remains of formerly enlaved people are buried."

When the Mississippi River flooded this spring, tons of water gushed through the Bonnet Carré Spillway, and into Lake Pontchartrain. The spillway is a big swath of open land, and it relieves the swollen river.


But it also holds some lesser known historic sites, like the Kenner and Kugler Cemeteries. After each opening, officials have to check up on them.

Jason Emery and three other men walk across an open, nondescript field inside the Bonnet Carré Spillway, their eyes focused on the ground.

Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Army Corps of Engineers archeologist Jason Emery led the inspection.

"I’m scanning back and forth," says Emery. "I’m trying to see under the grass. I’m looking for any divots, ruts, erosions — or bone."

Emery is an archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers. The field he's pacing used to be a cemetery, one of two in the spillway that used to be part of sugar plantations during the 19 century. The first people buried here were enslaved on those plantations. Later, free people of color — descendents of those slaves — were buried there, too.

"It was active until 1929," he says, "When [the Army Corps of Engineers] took over this land to construct the spillway.”

But even after the Corps took control of the land, the cemeteries were never moved. And every time the spillway is opened, archeologists like Emery have to make sure all that rushing water didn’t disrupt the bodies they conceal.

“You find anything?" Emery shouts to one of the other men. "Let’s swing around and do it again.”

The four men turn around for a second pass. Nothing unusual. Emery says that’s a good thing.

“I would rate [this inspection] as successful," he says. "There are no opening-related concerns associated with this cemetery.”

The Army Corps says it is working on a long-term master plan for the Bonnet Carré Spillway which includes a plan make the cemeteries more visible with signage and parking areas so visitors know they're there.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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